by Oliver Dewar
With the Global Ocean Race (GOR) Class40s spread over 1,200 miles to the west of New Zealand, there are, naturally, immense differences in the conditions for the five boats.
Bow wave - Photo Cessna Citation - Global Ocean Race 2011-12
Cessna Citation and BSL, the leading duo, were separated by 110 miles at 03:00 GMT on Wednesday and had entered an area of light airs off the western coast of South Island with 253 miles of Leg 2 remaining for Cessna Citation, while Campagne de France in third, 306 miles astern of BSL, was also trapped in a breeze vacuum tantalisingly close the finish line in Wellington. Straddling Tasmania and further to the west, Financial Crisis in fourth and Phesheya-Racing in fifth were in strong westerly wind and making good progress, despite a batten-breaking crash gybe for the Italian-Spanish team on Financial Crisis.
Marco Nannini and Hugo Ramon on Financial Crisis had been making solid speed averages of 10-12 knots as they sailed south of Tasmania: 'We were in yet another 45 knots stinker, making excellent progress under staysail and reefed main, occasionally surfing in the high teens,' reported Nannini on Tuesday morning. With the passage of a cold front, Financial Crisis was in big seas with decreasing wind strength. 'Increasing the sail area would keep you surfing on rails, but the waves were just too big and you have to wait, the boat slows down and you surf some waves then skip a few, then surf another one,' he explains of the duo’s winning technique.
So far so good, until a wave with Nannini’s name on it rolled in from the west: 'I was in the cockpit, standing and watching the majestic waves, a bit preoccupied as they were steeper than in the past days and some of the wave crests were breaking heavily,' he recalls. 'Then, a massive wave with a very steep front lifts our stern and I could only hold on and watch the boat speed surge past 23 knots in what felt like vertical free fall.' As Financial Crisis dropped into a trough ahead of the wave, the Class40 was screened from the gale’s blast: 'Both headsail and mainsail flapped powerless and we gybed gently but, almost immediately, as the wave caught up and lifted the boat from trough to peak, the full force of 45 knots of wind slammed the mainsail across,' says the Italian skipper. 'The main’s square top had flipped to the other side of the runner and as we crashed gybed again, this time very violently, I could only watch helplessly as three battens held captive by the runner snapped and one batten pocket ripped open.'
Nannini and Ramon leapt into action lowering the mainsail and as Financial Crisis rolled and bucked. They coaxed the broken battens and shattered batten-shards from the pockets; measured and cut new lengths from the spares strapped to the stanchions and fitted the replacements – remarkably quickly considering the conditions: 'It must have taken us a good hour whilst the boat was still being tossed around a lot,' Nannini confirms. At 07:00 GMT on Tuesday, Financial Crisis gybed north: 'The wind was due to increase further and we wanted to get out of the worst yet to come,' he explains. As Nannini and Ramon sailed north-east, 60 miles off the coast of Tasmania, 40-knot north-westerlies rolled past to the south of Financial Crisis. In the 03:00 GMT position poll on Wednesday, Nannini and Ramon were back on track averaging slightly under ten knots.
West of Financial Crisis and further north, Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire on Phesheya-Racing in fifth place saw less breeze than Nannini and Ramon, but had excellent, fast conditions: 'Today is probably one of our best days of the leg so far,' reported Hutton-Squire on Tuesday night. 'BluQube A6, staysail and one reef in the main, smoothly gliding down every enormous wave at pace.' Racing through steep seas, the South Africans experienced similar conditions as Nannini and Ramon, but without the crash gybes. 'The waves were still huge, 5-metre monsters,' she continues. 'Every time we got speed up and surfed down the wave, there was a little shift in the wind at the bottom of the wave and this caused the kite to collapse and bang around until you are up on the next wave surfing again.' At 03:00 GMT on Wednesday, Phesheya-Racing was 230 miles south-west of Tasmania making the highest speed average in the fleet at 10.1 knots and trailing Financial Crisis by 445 miles. 'In one position report we averaged 12.1 knots,' says Hutton-Squire. 'I think this is our fastest average this leg, so let’s see if we can keep it up.'
Stunning conditions 230 miles south-west of Tasmania - Photo Phesheya-Racing - Global Ocean Race 2011-12
Meanwhile, mid-evening GMT on Tuesday, the breaks went on for Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron on Campagne de France with speeds rapidly tumbling to sub-four knots by midnight. Miranda Merron sums up the situation: 'So near yet so far - there is a Fastnet Race and-a-bit left in terms to distance to finish,' she reports. 'This isn’t much in the great scheme of things, but the weather is not making it easy for us to reach Wellington.' Approximately midway between Tasmania and New Zealand, Campagne de France is currently trapped. 'The ridge of high pressure has snared us earlier than expected, making an ETA for New Year 2013 more realistic at this snail’s pace,' says Merron as the Franco-British duo averaged 4.3 knots at 03:00 GMT on Wednesday. 'Birds are swimming faster than the boat right know,' she adds. 'No wind does not mean no swell and the sails are gently slatting as the boat rolls….good beach weather!' While Mabire and Merron endure the light airs torture, the three-hourly fleet position polls provide little comfort with Financial Crisis to their west taking 33 miles from their lead overnight and BSL adding 30 miles to the distance deficit to the east.
Mabire and Merron are currently 470 miles due west of South Island with 670 miles to the finish line in Wellington Harbour and the forecast for the closing stages of 7,500 mile Leg 2 is not promising. 'There is ex-cyclone Fina roaming around threatening to make the last part quite unpleasant,' says Merron of the low pressure system currently centred 680 miles north-west of Wellington and forecast to track south towards the GOR fleet. 'The forecast changes, but at times the GRIB files are showing 45 knots for Cook Strait and they are usually on the light side for wind speed,' she concludes.
On Monday, the first of the five boats in the Volvo Ocean Race crossed the finish line of the event’s Leg 2 at a secret destination within the anti-piracy ‘Stealth Zone’ somewhere around the Equator in the Indian Ocean after 15 days of racing from Cape Town. The GOR fleet leaders are currently 253 miles from the Leg 2 finish line in New Zealand following 28 days of racing from Cape Town through the Indian Ocean’s high latitudes and the final miles are proving to be a real struggle. Early on Tuesday evening GMT, Conrad Colman and Sam Goodchild at the front of the fleet with Cessna Citation dropped speeds to below six knots 106 miles off the coast of South Island. Miraculously, just 100 miles to the south-west, Ross and Campbell Field on BSL in second place, held onto what breeze was available and chewed away at Colman and Goodchild’s lead, gaining 35 miles in 24 hours and closing into 110 miles by 03:00 GMT on Wednesday.
Despite the tension, the proximity of the opposition and the weather predictions for the next 48 hours, Conrad Colman is in high-spirits with his homeland so close: 'Ahhh, New Zealand! Finally! Land of the Long White Cloud,' commented the 27 year-old Kiwi early on Wednesday morning. 'The Maori legend of the settling of New Zealand is that paddlers in a huge canoe from Polynesia saw on the distant horizon a long white cloud and underneath lay the promised land, a rich bounty of never-before-seen wildlife that were quickly made into dinner, and subsequently extinct,' he explains. 'So goes the legend anyway, but on our arrival we’ve had a huge wind hole as a welcoming party with crazy wind shifts and maddening calms,' Colman reports. 'Thankfully, we’re not the first to find these islands, otherwise they would be known for all generations to come as ‘land of light and variable, with spotted cumulus’ which isn’t quite so catchy as the original.'
By Wednesday morning, Cessna Citation picked up speed to over seven knots and it was the turn of the Fields to drop the speed averages, but the forecast suggests that Fina will move south and there’s a probability that Colman and his co-skipper, Sam Goodchild, will have over 30 knots on the nose as they reach Cape Farewell at the northern tip of South Island and turn east into Cook Strait for the final 100 miles to the finish line in Wellington. 'Despite the setbacks, Sam and I are in fine form, thanking the New Zealand customs and immigration office for giving us an excuse to mow down the snack bags in our remaining stores,' says Colman of his country’s zero tolerance approach to imported food products, fruit, plants, animals, seeds or anything that might imbalance New Zealand’s delicate ecosystem. '‘Anything you’d like to declare, mate?’,' says Colman. '’BURP, nope! She’ll be right!’.'
GOR leadeboard at 03:00 GMT 28 December:
1. Cessna Citation DTF 253 7.4kts
2. BSL DTL 110 6.8kts
3. Campagne de France DTL 416 4.3kts
4. Financial Crisis DTL 790 9.4kts
5. Phesheya-Racing DTL 1235 10.1kts
Global Ocean Race website